“The student of utopias knows the weakness that lies in perfectionism... what is lacking in such dreams is not a sense of the practical; what is lacking is a realization of the essential human need for disharmony and conflict, elements whose acceptance and resolution are indispensable to psychological growth.” — Lewis Mumford
Considering that inner and outer conflict characterizes much of our individual and collective lives, one has to wonder about the gospel injunction “Be ye perfect.” It can’t mean faultless or flawless, because “As it is written, there is none righteous, no not one” (Rm 3:10).
As more accurate translations and nuanced readings would have it, each of us is still very much a “work in progress” and under the grace of God “even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” and shaping us in his image. That makes the perfection in question more a matter of the completion we envision and embrace as our divine destiny, than any meeting of high standards. Otherwise the command to be perfect is prone to the biggest trap for the religiously inclined: self-idealization. Otherwise known as being “above it all” with one’s belief system providing a kind of divine immunity to the down side of the human condition, inside and out.
There is no seal of godly approval. There is no perfection making us acceptable to God that we can achieve or accomplish on our own. There is only the perfect finished plan for humanity, paradoxically accounting for all in need of redemption.
One of the funniest moments we’ve ever had in the locker room at the gym where I go is when we were teasing one of the guys about how much time he spent preening in front of the mirrors. I asked him during the banter why he didn’t seem offended when labelled a narcissist. To this day, I don’t know how consciously clever and ironic his reply was intended to be, or how half-serious his response. In any case, without missing a beat he quipped, “I don’t mind because I’m not just any narcissist. I’m a flawless narcissist.”
The paradox is that we can’t be purified without getting our hands dirty, because that’s how the work gets done, including the soul work. That doesn’t mean we can’t be perfect in our hoped-for life purpose. Alfred Adler, who along with Freud and Jung was part of the original trinity of modern psychology, spoke of a fictional final goal or guiding fiction as indispensable to mental health. By that he meant the optimistic intention to hold the vision of what we can be at our best, however that is imagined by the individual. It’s a positive, teleological approach to personality, emphasizing the higher calling of a person under their unique life circumstances.
Adler’s theory diverged from Freud’s exposure of the underbelly of humanity, covered up by a thin veneer of civilization. The truth lies between the two. When asked about religion, Adler said, “we try to live in a way that, if there is a God, he must be satisfied with us.”
It’s when the fiction of the envisioned final goal (in that it’s always yet to be fulfilled) is displaced by reification of the idealized self, and an “elected” spiritual stance, that the story of religious hypocrisy begins. There are many great movies on the subject — see the films Rain (Joan Crawford, 1932), Susan and God (Joan Crawford, 1940), Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster, 1960) and The Apostle (Robert Duvall, 1997) for how the religiously perfect can be the enemy of the providentially possible, and how much mayhem that can cause.
Speyer is a Benedictine Oblate as well as an author, subject matter expert for e-therapy, clinical consultant and director of InnerView Guidance International (IGI). https://www.innerviewguidance.com